NEW YORK (AP) — The presidential election, pandemic and racial reckoning were stories that drove intense interest and engagement to news outlets in 2020. To a large degree, 2021 represented the inevitable hangover.Various metrics illustrate the dwindling popularity of news content.
Cable news networks were the main form of evening entertainment for millions of Americans last year. In 2021, weekday prime-time viewership dropped 38% at CNN, 34% at Fox News Channel and 25% at MSNBC, according to the Nielsen company.
The decline was also significant at broadcast television evening newscasts: 12% at ABC’s “World News Tonight” and the “CBS Evening News;” 14% at NBC’s “Nightly News,” Nielsen said.
The Trump era saw explosive subscriber growth for some digital news sites like The New York Times and Washington Post. Yet readers aren’t spending as much time there; Comscore said the number of unique visitors to the Post’s site was down 44% in November compared to November 2020, and down 34% at the Times.
While a Dec. 23 headline on the Los Angeles Times front page — “How Much More Can We Take?” — referred to COVID-19, it could easily be applied to the news appetite in general. For the most part, smart news executives knew the peaks of 2020 were not sustainable.
“It was entirely predictable,” said news media analyst Ken Doctor.
Perhaps that was most obvious at the cable news networks. They built a prime-time model almost entirely focused on political combat during the Trump years, which made it difficult for them to pivot to something different, said Tom Rosenstiel, a journalism professor at the University of Maryland. Those networks remain focused on politics even as viewership interest wanes.
“You become, to some extent, a prisoner of the audience you built,” Rosenstiel said.
Particularly for the national news outlets, Rosenstiel said 2021 may best be remembered as a transitional year away from the frenzied news pace of the Trump years.
Some outlets have turned elsewhere for revenue opportunities. CNN is preparing to debut a new streaming service early next year and Fox News is directing fans to its Fox Nation streaming service.
Although usage of the Times’ digital site is down, the company passed 8 million subscriptions and is on pace to grow further.
Doctor said the Times has done an effective job of diversifying beyond politics, most notably with its Wirecutter service of consumer recommendations.
Leaders at the Post have wrestled with how to deal their readers’ dependence on political fare, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Some 100 to 120 local newspapers shut down in 2021. Still, local news outlets are predicting the smallest number of job cuts in 14 years, according to the research firm Challenger Gray & Christmas.
That comes after 2020 saw the biggest number of lost newsroom jobs since 2008.